As the leader of a players-first program, John Calipari tried to do Thursday what he’s always done when things have gone awry with his team.
He tried falling on his sword.
On a post on this website Thursday, Coach Cal expressed disappointment with where the season is so far, but he shouldered the blame and took up for his players.
There was plenty of critiquing in the post. As Calipari wrote, the Cats aren’t accepting their roles, they’re not physically or mentally tough enough and they play not to lose, but Coach Cal said “that comes back to” him.
On Friday, the players took the sword out from underneath their coach and pointed it at themselves.
“We’re tired of Coach taking the blame (when) it’s really not his fault,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do. It’s about us not doing what we’re supposed to do.”
Regardless of who’s to blame for Kentucky’s 12-6 start, there is plenty of disappointment to go around.
Halfway through the season, the Cats find themselves at 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference, without any wins over a top-60 RPI team and right in the middle of the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation.
It isn’t a place where UK thought it would be nearly 10 months ago when the 2011-12 team was cutting down the national championship nets in New Orleans – even after bidding adieu to six NBA Draft picks – but it’s reality right now after a disappointing collapse and missed opportunity at a good résumé-building win in Alabama on Tuesday.
Record: 10-6, 1-4 SEC
Head coach: Johnny Jones (10-6 at LSU)
Player to watch: Anthony Hickey (11.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.4 steals)
Series history: UK leads 82-24
Last meeting: UK won 60-51 on March 9, 2012
“You can’t predict how the season’s going to go at the beginning of the year,” Mays said. “You just got to take it in stride and when those things come up, then that’s when you’ll approach it. But you never know how the season’s going to go until it actually happens and it’s happening now. It’s not how we ever wanted it to be, but it’s happened.”
Everyone thought Kentucky had turned the corner with a dominating 22-point win at Auburn, but the perception of UK’s season quickly changed when the Cats fell Tuesday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. When their backs were against the wall and things got “hairy,” Calipari said they reverted to old habits.
“I just think it’s about trust with everybody and it’s all about buying in,” Mays said. “It’s not trusting coaching, it’s not trusting the players, so I think it’s all about us trusting each other and not going off on our own islands and thinking what we want to do.”
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said it’s too early to hit the panic button and worry about the NCAA Tournament, but he admitted the players need to have a sense of urgency and put the responsibility upon themselves the turn the season around.
“We’re taking the same approach,” Wiltjer said. “Every day at practice we want to improve and just look at every game like it’s our last game.”
Like Mays, Wiltjer said it’s up to each individual player to look at himself in the mirror and start to change.
“We need to take responsibility and really change like he’s saying because (Coach is) trying hard, he’s giving it his all,” Wiltjer said. “We’ve just got to do the same and improve.”
The Cats have been down this road before – ahem, see the Auburn game – but Mays thinks Thursday’s practice may have been a turning point. Instead of letting Calipari doing all the teaching and the disciplining, Mays said the players took it upon themselves to get after each other.
Mays said it was the most talking he’s heard in a practice since he’s been at Kentucky.
“A lot of urgency was shown,” Mays said. “It was of the first practices we’ve had since I’ve been here where it was as hard as we went and we showed a lot of enthusiasm. That was a good sign, but I hope guys are realizing that it has to be turned around and we don’t have much time to keep saying the same things.”
Although he would never say it publicly, especially after Thursday’s post expressing disappointment in himself, one could forgive Coach Cal if is getting a little tired of trying, asking and pleading his players to look at themselves as individuals and change.
In that respect, the words of his players and the effort of Thursday’s practice had to be somewhat refreshing and relieving as his team tunes up for Saturday’s 4 p.m. game against LSU.
“One of the best things for all of us is when you realize that you can change your attitude and you can change your habits,” Calipari said. “You can. Now, you may not choose to because it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable. It maybe embarrasses you that what you were doing is wrong so you’ve got to change, but when you do change your habits and you do change your attitude, your life changes. Ask Josh Harrellson. Ask DeAndre Liggins. Your life changes.”
If there is a player on this year’s team who can illustrate the fruits of change, it’s Kyle Wiltjer.
Once mired in a miserable slump to start SEC play, Wiltjer has transformed himself from an inconsistent offensive player and defensive liability to UK’s go-to guy and tough man. No one would have envisioned it a few weeks ago when Wiltjer was getting burned on defense and scored just two points in two games, but he’s turned into Kentucky’s energy and vocal leader.
“(He’s) dunking every ball, screaming on dunks, sprinting up and down the floor, blocking out, going and grabbing rebounds in traffic,” Calipari said. “He’s an animal right now.”
So what led to the change? A little public embarrassment.
After that Vanderbilt game, Coach Cal didn’t hold back in his assessment of Wiltjer. Calipari called him out for giving up easy baskets, noted how many points Vanderbilt scored on him and told him to change or sit on the bench.
Coach Cal said Wiltjer got embarrassed and forced himself to change.
“Why did I do it?” Calipari rhetorically asked himself. “Because I wasn’t getting any change just talking to him and the team. I’ve done that with a couple other guys. ‘Well, you shouldn’t say things publicly about guys.’ I’m not deriding them. I’m just making factual that, if you look, this is what they’re doing and we need that to change.”
It was a different approach than the one he took with the blog post on Thursday blaming himself, but it worked with Wiltjer. In the last three games, he’s averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and shooting 54.5 percent from the floor.
“(I’ve been) kind of just pushing myself harder than I thought I could push myself, if that makes sense,” Wiltjer said. “Kind of just pushing through it and trying to lead the guys in practice and then almost practicing harder than I would in a game just to make it easier.”
Now the key for UK is getting everyone else to do the same. It hasn’t been easy to this point, but if the Cats want to put the NCAA Tournament worries behind them, they’ll have to take the sword, point it at themselves and use it to pop any bubble talk.
Change, Calipari says, and everything else will take care of itself.
“The success you have is peace of mind,” Coach Cal said. “Knowing in your heart of hearts you’ve done everything you could, worked as hard as you could for yourself and your team, you have peace of mind. You don’t have to worry about it.”
Cauley-Stein remains questionable
Kentucky freshman forward Willie Cauely-Stein, who has missed the last two games after having a minor procedure done on his knee, remains uncertain for Saturday’s game.
Calipari said he was walking around good at breakfast, but he did not practice Thursday.
“We’ll see,” Coach Cal said.
For a man that is trying to catch Anthony Davis and break the UK single-season blocked shots record, every swat counts.
Noel will be relieved to know then that he was credited with another block for Tuesday’s game after officials reviewed the tape.
The added block gave him eight for the game, a career high. He is now at 77 on the season, six shy Andre Riddick and Melvin Turpin’s second place mark.
(National rankings in parentheses)
|Scoring offense||75.9 (33)||72.1 (81)|
|Scoring defense||61.6 (66)||68.1 (215)|
|FG percentage||48.4 (18)||42.5 (204)|
|FG percentage defense||38.2 (26)||41.1 (119)|
|3-point percentage||36.3 (81)||33.9 (162)|
|3-point percentage defense||30.1 (43)||32.1 (125)|
|FT percentage||64.2 (301)||60.2 (338)|
|Rebound margin||+5.2 (48)||+2.1 (129)|
|Steals per game||7.1 (164)||10.9 (4)|
|Blocks per game||7.7 (3)||4.4 (82)|
|Assists per game||15.3 (44)||14.7 (72)|
|Turnover margin||+0.8 (142)||+1.1 (128)|
|Points per game||Archie Goodwin (14.6)||Shavon Coleman (12.4)|
|Rebounds per game||Nerlens Noel (9.4)||Johnny O’Bryant (7.9)|
|Field-goal percentage||Alex Poythress (62.1)||Johnny O’Bryan (48.1)|
|3-point percentage||Kyle Wiltjer (41.9)||Andre Stringer (38.8)|
|Free-throw percentage||Julius Mays (83.9)||Andre Stringer (74.1)|
|Assists per game||Ryan Harrow (3.6)||Charles Carmouche (3.9)|
|Blocks per game||Nerlens Noel (4.2)||Andrew Del Piero (1.4)|
|Steals per game||Nerlens Noel (2.5)||Anthony Hickey (3.9)|